Monthly Archives: November 2004

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How to be an opposition 

The only startling thing I read today was Josh Marshall’s explanation of what being a real opposition party should mean for the Democrats. The crucial passage:

  Just as you can’t prevent barnacles from fixing themselves to the hulls of ships that doesn’t mean that you don’t periodically scrape them off when they become wildly overgrown.
  Right now the hull of the ship of state is horribly overgrown with barnacles and all manner of other moneyed and interested crustaceans. And just as it makes no sense to let positive change be stymied by a too fastidious concern with clean political process, we’re now at the point where the dirtiness of politics — or rather the institutional corruption, no, the legalized prostitution that our politics now is — makes progressive legislation in the public interest close to impossible. All the more reason for Democrats to yoke together their values and their political interest and become a genuine party of reform.

There aren’t many occasions where British political experience can help inform American politics. But this is certainly one. Of course the parliamentary system both institutionalises the role of the opposition and makes it much easier than in the US. The weekly set piece of prime minister’s questions allows the opposition leader (and the party out of power in the US will never have a leader in that sense) to appear on an equal footing with the PM. Other ministers, too, face regular peer-to-peer debate.

And unlike in Congress, the debates are considered to matter. If a prime minister can’t perform in the House of Commons, he or she won’t last long as prime minister.

So the Democrats lack these advantages (not that the Conservatives have figured out how to use them against Tony Blair). But an examination of the record of successful oppositions in Britain will reveal some valuable lessons. Have an overriding purpose, keep hammering away at the same themes, tenaciously pursue every slip and flop, keep chipping away, even if you think you’re not getting anywhere.

I arrived in Britain in the autumn of 1978, not long before Jim Callaghan lost to Margaret Thatcher. It was nearly 20 years before Labour got back into power. There were plenty of times when it seemed as though it would never return to power, but from the Neil Kinnock days as leader I think the party put itself on something like the right track. Kinnock, of course, wasn’t sufficient (but his loss to John Major was very painful). John Smith took up the cudgels. And Tony Blair finally devastated the Conservatives.

The Conservatives haven’t yet had their Kinnock, to say nothing of Smith or Blair. I wish I had more confidence that the Democrats had the leaders in the House or the Senate to put them on the right track. Tough times sometimes make for great men. Let’s hope.

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Indicators for the falling dollar 

Tyler Cowan: “Overall, the more scare stories you read about a falling dollar, the less you should worry. The Major Media aren’t exactly ahead of the curve on an issue like this. Their scare-mongering means that the real dangers have already been capitalized and digested. It is when you read blog posts like this one that you should fear the worst…”

Channelling Gibbon to explain open source 

Brad DeLong: “Think of it this way: Microsoft is like the late Roman Empire, IBM is like the Huns, and the Linux programmers are like the Goths. IBM’s support of Linux is the analogue of the Huns driving the Goths before them to soften up the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century.”

The first Nobel prizewinner weblog 

There’s nothing on it yet, but economics Nobelist Gary Becker and judge and legal scholar Richard Posner have set up a weblog. From the first demo entry, it seems as if Larry Lessig helped them set it up. If Becker and Posner start writing, this could be very interesting (via Eugene Volokh).

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High time 

Ian Traynor has a fascinating insight into the spectacularly odd coalition that has developed a formula for democratic victory in emerging democracies: mix some veteran Belgrade dissidents with officials from both the Democratic and Republican parties, add some US embassy staff, and stir in some spice from George Soros’s Open Society Institute.

  In the centre of Belgrade, there is a dingy office staffed by computer-literate youngsters who call themselves the Centre for Non-violent Resistance. If you want to know how to beat a regime that controls the mass media, the judges, the courts, the security apparatus and the voting stations, the young Belgrade activists are for hire.
  They emerged from the anti-Milosevic student movement, Otpor, meaning resistance. The catchy, single-word branding is important. In Georgia last year, the parallel student movement was Khmara. In Belarus, it was Zubr. In Ukraine, it is Pora, meaning high time. Otpor also had a potent, simple slogan that appeared everywhere in Serbia in 2000 – the two words “gotov je”, meaning “he’s finished”, a reference to Milosevic. A logo of a black-and-white clenched fist completed the masterful marketing.
  In Ukraine, the equivalent is a ticking clock, also signalling that the Kuchma regime’s days are numbered.

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In praise of orange 

It’s a good time to have an orange-themed weblog.

De Toqueville and pumpkin pie 

Kieran Healy has the most enjoyable Thanksgiving reflection I’ve read.

  Thanksgiving is one of America’s best ideas. Appropriately it is intimately associated with one of America’s worst inventions, the Pumpkin Pie. I say “appropriately” because such antinomies are common in American life. North and South, Red States and Blue States, expensive gourmet coffee and never a spoonful of real cream to put in it what do you mean you only have the kind that sprays out of a can never mind no that’s fine. On such foundational tensions is America built. I’m sure Alexis de Toqueville has a line about this somewhere in Democracy in America. Something about the Pumpkin containing the Seeds of its own Destruction — no wait, that was Marx in Vol. III of Theorien über den Wurzelgemüse. For de Tocqueville, pumpkin pie is the fulcrum of the argument developed in Book II, Chapter 14 of Democracy in America, where he shows “How the taste for physical gratifications is united in America to love of freedom and attention to public affairs.” A taste for physical gratification that is fed with pumpkin pie is sure to kindle a strong love of freedom (from the obligation to eat any more) and a concomitant commitment to public affairs (especially the effort to ban the thing once and for all).

It seems unfashionable, but I like pumpkin pie (and I love turkey). Today is not a holiday here, but we’re going to two different Thanksgiving meals this weekend.

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As Lenin wrote 

For all the talk that British government is becoming more and more American in style, some things do emphasise the difference.

Foreign secretary Jack Straw has a letter in today’s Independent that proudly displays his training in left-wing student politics many, many years ago:

  Dear Comrade Editor: On reflection, rather than expressing outrage at Robert Fisk’s libel that I was an “old Trot” (letter, 16 November), I should express my gratitude. For it has taken the correspondence this sparked to remind me that among the many other objections to Trotskyists, which include revanchism, false consciousness and objectively counter-revolutionary tendencies, they are such a humourless bunch.
  Two of your correspondents (Mr Kelly and Mr Ovenden, letters 17 November) claim that because Lenin hardly mentioned Trotsky in his polemic Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, this tract could not have contained the “prescient warning” against Trotskyism, as I had asserted.
  Fortunately, the Foreign Office library still has Lenin’s complete works (and well marked they are too). Yes, at the time that Lenin wrote – 1919 – Trotsky was part of the collective Soviet leadership. But Lenin had already spotted that Trotsky was indeed a Trot. For example, in his 1914 article Disruption of unity under the cover of outcries for unity, Lenin wrote ” … we were right in calling Trotskyism a representation and the worst remnants of factionalism” (Collected Works, Vol 17 pp 242-44). Lenin’s observations in Left Wing Communism were prescient, with his warnings of “splitism”, “ultra leftism” and “wider infantile disorders”, which have so characterised Trotskyist groups throughout their history.
  Foreign Secretary
  House of Commons
  PS. Quiz question: Name a successful Trotskyist government (or revolution, for that matter).

My quiz question: is there any US politician that would admit to reading Lenin (even for research purposes), or who would know how to use terms like revanchism, false consciousness and splitism? (Thanks to Harry’s Place for spotting the letter.)

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Cor blimey 

Deputy prime minister John Prescott often tells it as he sees it, an increasingly rare phenomenon in modern politics:

“Fox-hunting? Cor blimey! What are we getting worried about fox-hunting for? Iraq’s a very serious question, fox-hunting isn’t.”

Reporting on the full spectrum 

I don’t think weblogs need to be judged on their success in conventional media, but there’s a significance to The Guardian‘s devoting three-quarters of page one and half of page two to a posting from Kevin Sites‘s weblog.

Read all of Sites’s explanation of what he saw in Falluja. It’s vivid and important. The nub of the analysis for me comes in the peroration:

  In war, as in life, there are plenty of opportunities to see the full spectrum of good and evil that people are capable of. As journalists, it is our job is to report both — though neither may be fully representative of those people on whom we’re reporting. For example, acts of selfless heroism are likely to be as unique to a group as the darker deeds. But our coverage of these unique events, combined with the larger perspective – will allow the truth of that situation, in all of its complexities, to begin to emerge. That doesn’t make the decision to report events like this one any easier. It has, for me, led to an agonizing struggle — the proverbial long, dark night of the soul.

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People think first if it’s dangerous 

Dan Gillmor, on weblogs in China:

  When I asked the youthful bloggers what kind of things they wrote about online, the answers reflected today’s reality. “Personal things,” one student responded, and others in the room nodded in agreement. Another student, a computer-science major, also writes about technologies such as software architecture. But politics? Uh, no thanks.
  Don’t be surprised, says Isaac Mao, a 32-year-old technologist, investor and one of the first Chinese bloggers ( and Some things are just considered too risky.
  Before posting anything on a blog, he says, “people think first if it’s dangerous.”

The transatlantic divide 

Harry, of Harry’s Place, has a sobering riposte to those Europeans feeling smug about the current direction of the US. An excerpt:

  I’d just ask that when black sportsmen in the Superbowl have to put up with monkey noises and other racist taunts , let me know.
  (You can also let me know when one of their leading sports teams are taken over by a rather dubious Russian billionaire and the response of the press is merely to wonder which star players his club will now purchase).
  Remind me when a member of an American family which enjoys great unearned wealth and influence and not insignificant unelected constitutional import, the son of a woman who is the unelected head of state due to an accident of birth, has the American media in a tizzy about his ludicrous fantasies about modern education methods (of which he has zero experience).
  When a billionaire president of the United States is elected despite being on trial for corruption and fraud and then goes on to change the laws so as to un-invent those crimes, let me know. (Also let me know when the president controls the six main television networks in the States and when ‘uncooperative’ journalists then lose their jobs)
  When the US presidential election provides a choice between a conservative and an anti-immigrant, holocaust-denying fascist let me know.

Like Harry, I’m not particularly a fan of the so-called American model. I’ve long argued that most of the world doesn’t want to be like Silicon Valley — or anywhere else in America. But I’m also that comparative oddity. Someone who has lived a long time in Europe (26 years and counting), and feels very European, but is very fundamentally American and — despite the terrible, current administration — proud of it.

There’s an enormous amount good about Europe, but those who are swift to tar America should — as Harry eloquently suggests — look first at home.

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Another Boris surprise 

To my mind, perhaps the least likely politician to be interested in the beta of Google Scholar is Conservative MP Boris Johnson. But look:

  As you know an MP’s day-to-day working involves a great deal of research to keep up to date with latest policy ideas and Bills running through Parliament.
  Now Google have come up with a cracking first-rate search engine looking up scholarly literature including peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports from all broad areas of research. This should greatly enhance our research capability. Released yesterday for beta testing, it looks promising and you may like to try it out as well.

I’ll have to declare a moratorium on mentions of Boris here, but he is a rare, interesting politician.

Clinton remains the master 

Bill Clinton’s speech at the opening of his presidential library:

  America has two great dominant strands of political thought — we’re represented up here on this stage — conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barrier that are no longer needed or should never have been erected in the first place.
  It seemed to me that in 1992 we needed to do both to prepare America for the 21st century: to be more conservative in things like erasing the deficit and paying down the debt and preventing crime and punishing criminals and protecting and supporting families, and enforcing things like child support laws and reforming the military to meet the new challenges of the 21st century.
  And we needed to be more progressive in creating good jobs, reducing poverty, increasing the quality of public education, opening the doors of college to all, increasing access to health care, investing more in science and technology, and building new alliances with our former adversaries, and working for peace across the world and peace in America across all the lines that divide us.
  Now, when I proposed to do both, we said that all of them were consistent with the great American values of opportunity, responsibility and community.

It just might work 

TM Lutas on the potential of the Pentagon’s planned second generation battlefield Internet for peacebuilding (via Thomas PM Barnett):

  You want to change people’s psychological connectivity with the world? Give them an instrument that gives them vital information like how to get a job, where to get food or medical aid, curfew rules so they won’t get shot, and alongside that education in how to become a free citizen and not a subject, ways to register their needs and wants and structural aids in how to organize to get them, connectivity to military intelligence, news from around the world, the possibilities are broad and far ranging.

I’ve long been a sceptic of the grander notions of the power of the Internet to transform the world’s most disadvantaged communities. Clean water, healthcare, education and shelter are far more important. But Lutas may well be right about the potential in post-conflict situations, not least because of the ability of the military to deliver many of these benefits (assuming they are in a Kosovo situation, not an Iraqi one).

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The Snow effect 

BBC: “US Treasury Secretary John Snow has reiterated the US commitment to a strong dollar, as the greenback hit another record low against the euro.”

This (purple) land is my land… 

Eric Folkerth (a perfect name for a folk singer) has written a song in response to the many observations about purple America. A sample of the lyrics:

  We all live in a Purple Land,
  Every woman, child and man,
  So don’t get too proud. Don’t misunderstand,
  ‘Cause this great nation is just one big Purple Land.